It’s OK to cry, to be overcome by grief. It’s OK to be mad, to scream out in frustration. Most of all, it’s OK to ask for help.
That was the message to the Orange Coast College baseball team as it prepared for Tuesday’s season opener against Chula Vista Southwestern, a game that will be played just two days after longtime Pirates coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their 13-year-old daughter, Alyssa, died in the fiery helicopter crash that also killed former Lakers star Kobe Bryant on Sunday.
“We athletes, we’re macho, and we want to be tough, and because of that, sometimes we pretend like we’re not hurting,” former Cal State Fullerton and Oregon coach George Horton, a close friend of the Altobelli family, told players before practice Monday.
“Don’t do that. That’s not a good prescription for where you’re at right now. The authentic thing would be to let it fly [Tuesday] on behalf of the Altobelli family. That’s what John would want you to do. And if you’re crying running down the base line because something struck you, that’s authentic.”
More than 300 current and former players, family members and friends gathered at Wendell Pickens Field on the school’s Costa Mesa campus Sunday to mourn the loss of Altobelli, 56, who guided the Pirates to four state championships and more than 700 victories in 27 seasons as coach. Last season, Altobelli was named national coach of the year by the American Baseball Coaches Association for leading the Pirates to the state title.
Players voted unanimously to play Tuesday’s 2 p.m. home game, which will be preceded by a short tribute to Altobelli that will include speeches by associate head coach Nate Johnson and athletic director Jason Kehler as well as a moment of silence.
“Alto would want us to play — we know that,” said sophomore left-handed pitcher Mike Ryhlick, who will start Tuesday with the inscription “J.A. 14,” Altobelli’s initials and jersey number, on his cap. “He wants us to play and compete. I’m sure it’s going to be very emotional, but we’re going to do this for him.”
Before practice, the team erected a bright orange banner with the No. 14 and the phrase “Forever a Pirate” on the left-field fence next to the No. 22 banner honoring Jourdan Watanabe, the former OCC catcher who died in 2009.
The team posed for pictures in front of the new banner, which was made by self-proclaimed OCC “superfan” Keith Franklin, a 55-year-old, ponytailed structural welder from Costa Mesa.
“There was just something magical about the way he treated people,” Franklin said of Altobelli. “He’d bring me into the dugout when nobody was looking to high-five guys who hit homers. He invited me to be in the team photo last season. He gave me a [championship] ring. What happened … it’s just devastating.”
Several grief counselors and five therapy dogs were at practice, and players were encouraged to seek out mental health services on campus.
In addition to Horton, who coached Altobelli’s son, J.J., a shortstop, at Oregon from 2010 to 2013, former Angels third baseman Doug DeCinces, another friend of Altobelli’s, addressed the team.
“Don’t push down your feelings — understand them, try to deal with them now,” DeCinces said. “Losses are part of life. It’s how you deal with them, what you learn from them, that’s going to allow you to be a better person and player.”
Johnson, 30, asked his players to be patient with him as he takes over for Altobelli, and to lean on the Pirates assistant coaches.
“No one is going to know the perfect thing to do, but we’re going to go with our gut and try to lead this team the best we can,” Johnson said. “Alto is going to be in our minds every single day, and we’re going to do things right.
“And when we’re going through practice, if all of a sudden something hits you, it’s OK to step back and take a second. Take a knee on the field. Take yourself to whatever moment you’re feeling and then bring yourself back out of that moment and understand that this place needs to be a sanctuary, a relief area.
“Alto was always talking about that. Shoot, last week, he told me how this was his dream job and about how not to waste a single day out there because it can be taken away like that,” Johnson added, snapping his fingers. “He lived by that.”
At the close of Monday’s practice, players placed their arms around one another’s shoulders and formed a circle around home plate, which was covered with floral bouquets and candles. They bowed their heads in prayer.
They lost their beloved coach, but they have each other and they have a lot of support.
“I think it will help us out a ton,” Ryhlick said. “As much as people say we don’t need help, everybody is different. Maybe the dog didn’t help this guy, but it helped this person. Maybe this guy doesn’t need a counselor, but this guy does. It’s all there for us, so we don’t have to fight this alone.”